Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Telling the True Stories

The Bible tells stories.

Inspiring, authentic, and uplifting stories.

Unexpected, surprising, and startling stories.

Messy, ugly, and tragic stories.

Holy Scriptures are accounts and memories of our ancestors of faith. They are narratives, history, songs, prophecy, letters, and gospels, telling the rich, varied, and messy stories of humanity’s relationship with God.

A cursory read through the accounts of the patriarchs reveals men who made courageous choices…and profoundly stupid, even malevolent ones. David essentially rapes Bathsheba, who we never hear consent to sex with a king before he eventually kills her husband to save his own royal skin. Jacob is an entire warning of poor life choices and misdeeds. Jesus’ disciples don’t fair much better. They are often pictured as bumbling and clueless, as well as faithful and devoted.

The unvarnished truth of courage and cowardice, love and hate, faith and doubt, and good and evil embodied in the ancestors of our faith, are honest and authentic. This authenticity reminds us we are far from perfect, capable of great evil, and still loved by God in this dichotomy of extremes. We are the same ones who are part of God’s good creation and the ones who turn away from this holy goodness as stiff-necked people.

In the last few months and years, my city has been in the midst of a growing national conversation about monuments in civic squares memorializing Confederate soldiers. A common refrain I’ve heard from citizens opposed to their relocation or removal is one of rewriting history.

I love the history of my native South. I love its folklore and music. I love the fried food and the rituals of summers on the porch and winters where 45 degrees is way too cold. I love its almost irrational love of college football and the way people who've never met strike up full conversations at the post office. I love the lazy, sing-song accents. I love its story.

But I don’t love our attempts to nuance our story, rewrite it, or completely ignore huge narratives because they don’t show us in our best light. If I don’t love the fallen parts of the South, I don’t really love it. Love is not only about the shiny, pretty parts. Love is also about recognizing the tragic, even immoral aspects and being present to those stories. Love demands I know the full story, not just the parts that make me feel comfortable and proud.

I don’t love the desire to make us as white southerners seem better than we were and that our past of profiting from slavery doesn’t have a direct profit in white privilege today. Faith doesn't ignore the messy, tragic, and evil parts of our story with God. Faith demands we don't ignore the messy, tragic, and evil parts of our story as a people, region, and country, either. 

Civil War statues in military parks and cemeteries tell a story of the deep cost of war in human lives. The fable of the romantic nobility of the Civil War is quickly erased as tens of thousands of candles, each representing a human casualty at Antietam, flicker at night. War is a narrative of tragedy and loss, but it, too is a story we must tell.

We can’t truly argue relocating or removing these statues from pubic grounds is rewriting history if, in the over 150 years since the Civil War, we have made little attempt to tell and to listen to the whole story of our country, including the story of slavery. Can we imagine the story our souls would hear if we lit a candle on the hallowed grounds of slave markets and cotton fields where millions worked and died and by roadside trees where people of of color were lynched? 

I wonder if what we’re really saying when we worry about rewriting history has more to do with finally hearing the fullness of our story. Perhaps removing these statues invites us, even forces us, to read the pages of our history we hoped to forget. These are the pages we’d ripped from the book and hidden under a rug because people don’t like to recognize the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf, that is still being done. If we read these pages, will we see ourselves in the fullness of who we are and be devastated at the evil we have wrought through our history of racism, white supremacy, prejudice, and hate?

I hope we will. I hope we who are the children of power and privilege follow God into the jarring, painful process as we read and listen to the story of the agonizing, painful words of racism. 

Even in theses words, the love of God is still written. 

Godly love demands I know the full story, as much as I can. And right now, we need to recognize more of our story and listen to even more of it. The narrative of American exceptionalism tempts us to edit out the parts of our history that are painful, messy, and repugnant. Rewriting history rarely removes narratives. Instead, it adds to our human story, often re-discovering parts we would rather not read.

We need the narrative of this country’s full story of slavery instead of relegating it to one room of a plantation tour. The whole tour should talk about slavery, because the plantation would not have existed without it. Slavery and white supremacy should be included in every chapter of school books on American history instead of a few scattered footnotes. We need to read, learn, and inwardly digest this narrative right into present day and its continuing impact on our country. 

We need to write the story of how the church has long been complicit in white supremacy.  I’ve visited hundreds of churches across this nation, and those with historic markers of politicians, veterans, and other notable church members are numerous. I could count on one hand those churches that recognize how slavery and money from slavery built houses of worship or funded their still-existing endowments. The number is increasing, and thanks be to God for church leaders who are writing this history to remember words we have tried repeatedly to erase.

We need to write our story to heal. We cannot heal from the wounds we do not acknowledge. The history we’ve told ourselves for far too long minimizing slavery has allowed the deep wound of racism to fester. Acknowledging this is painful and exacting, and yet, ignoring it has proved neither healing or helpful. 

Relocating or removing statues honoring men who fought to keep people of color enslaved is not erasing their legacy. If only we could, indeed, do that so easily. Instead, these actions recognize something the ancestors of our faith knew deeply - telling the full story, the noble and the horrible aspects, reminds us who we were and who we are. We celebrate the inspiring chapters, and we examine, learn, and begin healing from the ones we’d rather omit as we carefully listen to these stories.

May we have the courage to tell and listen to stories.

Inspiring, authentic, and uplifting stories.

Unexpected, surprising, and startling stories.

Messy, ugly, and tragic stories.

May we have the courage to let these stories challenge us, change us, and heal us. 







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